Up Close and Personal with the Dell XPS L501x

Looking at the specs and figuring out that the XPS L501x sounds like a good laptop is easy enough, but how does it fare in actual practice? In fact, it does very well, and this is easily one of my favorite laptops from the past several years. The old Studio XPS 16 had an impressive LCD option, just like the L501x, but from a design standpoint there were areas that I didn't particularly care for—chief among these being the use of glossy plastic surfaces all over the chassis. To say that fingerprints on the piano black finish were a problem is an understatement, so the switch to a matte plastic bezel and aluminum surfaces removes our biggest complaint.

The new design looks better, and it feels better as well—though we didn't have any real complaints with the Studio XPS build quality to begin with. The L501x has rounded corners and beveled edges that fit together snugly and look attractive. It's a sturdy laptop—not at the level of business notebooks perhaps, but definitely a step up from the Inspiron and other consumer offerings. Some may prefer the industrial design aesthetic of the Adamo line, but personally the L501x is more my speed. The palm rest is plenty large, with an equally large touchpad in the center. Like most modern laptops, the touchpad is multi-touch and gesture aware; it may not integrate with the OS as well as the MacBook touchpad does with OS X, but that's more of a Windows and application problem.

Besides the keyboard backlighting, there's not much to say other than it works well. The layout is fine, and Dell skips on the numeric keypad to make room for the speakers. Normally, we'd question such a move, but in this case there's some good sound quality to back it up. The key travel is good, all of the important keys are readily accessible with no funky Fn-key combinations required (the function keys default to multimedia, but you can switch that setting in the BIOS). There's also very little flex—only if you mash down on the keys with several pounds of pressure do you see flex, and in regular use the keyboard works well.

To the left and right of the keyboard are cutouts for the JBL speakers, and Dell is rightfully proud of their audio quality. There's a similar cutout pattern on the bottom for the integrated subwoofer. While I'm no audio expert by any means, what I can tell you is that subjectively these speakers blow away any other laptop I've used, and they can get very loud without distortion. To compare speaker quality, I grabbed a couple other laptops and looked at maximum volume without [noticeable] distortion.

The XPS L501x managed an impressive 83dB at three feet, with good bass and no serious quality concerns. The ASUS G73Jw, which also sounds good for a notebook and has 5.1 speakers, reached around 80dB as well, but there was some distortion and static present in our test audio files. We had to dial it down to 75% volume (~70dB) to eliminate the distortion, and while that's still reasonably loud the sound quality simply wasn't as good as the L501x. Bringing up the rear and representing "typical" laptops, we have an Acer 5551G we're working on reviewing, this time with just the two stereo speakers. While better than some Acer laptops we've looked at in the past (the 5740G for example had serious distortion problems), the 5551G put out a maximum of 67dB and was very thin and light on the bass (as expected). The JBL speakers in the L501x are very impressive…for a laptop. They're still small, so temper your expectations: you won't get the soundscape of a set of large studio monitors from a couple of small tweeters in a laptop chassis, no matter how hard you try, but you could at least watch a movie with a couple of friends and not strain to hear the audio.

Another big upgrade relative to the older Studio XPS comes in the graphics department. Okay, the 420M isn't going to set the world on fire with its performance, but it does manage roughly the same level of gaming capabilities as the GT 335M (which is roughly on par with the HD 4670). More importantly, Dell now has Optimus Technology in the dual-core XPS laptops, so now you can have performance when you need it but still get good battery life. Like all 400M equipped laptops, the L501x supports HDMI 1.4, and Dell includes free support for NVIDIA's 3DTV Play. If you have a 3D HDTV and upgrade to a Blu-ray drive, you can use the L501x to watch 3D movies on your television. Again, I'm completely unsold on the whole 3D video concept—I've tried it and simply wasn't that impressed—but at least you're not stuck paying extra for a feature that should just work.

Finally, there's the display to discuss. I'm not sure what the deal is with "B+GR LED" marketing—that would imply separate blue and green/red LEDs, which would be a halfway house between standard yellow LEDs and the RGB LEDs used in the top LCD panels. Anyway, the 1080p panel in the L501x is an AU Optronics B156HW01, and if that's the same as the B156HW03, that would make this a WLED backlight. Subjectively, that's not particularly important, as the image is still great. We'll get to the display measurements later, but the short story is you get a near-100% AdobeRGB 1998 (ARGB1998) gamut, good viewing angles, and a good contrast ratio.

So with all the good, what's not to like? Not being able to upgrade the CPU and GPU independently is probably the issue that will come up first for most users. What if you want better gaming performance and would like the GT 435M, but you want to keep Optimus? What if you want a quad-core processor for content creation but you don't need a faster GPU? In either case, you're out of luck—at least for now. We'll probably see a new Sandy Bridge version of the L501x that gives you both quad-core and Optimus, hopefully with better performance and battery life, but we're still waiting for the official Sandy Bridge launch. My only other complaint is with the HDD, specifically it's a pain to get to the HDD if you happen to want to do an SSD upgrade on your own. Since Dell is still using Samsung SSDs, if you want maximum random read/write performance you'll probably want a SandForce controller (or wait a bit longer for the third generation Intel parts and other offerings to arrive). Dell charges $550 to upgrade to a 256GB Samsung SSD; you can grab a 240GB SF-1200 for as little as $430, which is a far better proposition. But to do the HDD upgrade, you'll need to remove the palm-rest first, which isn't super difficult but it's far more cumbersome than simply removing the bottom plate. Our final complaint is that as good as the 1080p "B+GR LED" LCD is, that's not the standard panel, and we would be more than a little surprised to see anything remotely comparable from the stock 768p display. If you want a good LCD, make sure you pay for the upgrade!

Are we picking nits here? Yes, we certainly are, and that's because the L501x gets so many things right. The build quality is much better than average, battery life is good, performance is a substantial bump from the old Core 2 Duo Studio XPS—in both graphics and CPU workloads—and the audio really needs to be experienced to hear how good it is (relative to other laptops as well as basic desktop speakers). There really isn't a single show-stopper in sight. Gamers will still pine for a better GPU like the 460M, particularly if they want to drive the 1080p panel at native resolution and medium to high detail settings, but for the price the new XPS line comes with everything I would recommend in a modern laptop. That's the initial experience, but I'm sure you want some benchmarks and concrete data to back things up, so let's get to it.

Dell XPS L501x: Windows' MacBook Pro Alternative Dell XPS L501x Application Performance
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  • Evil_Sheep - Thursday, November 11, 2010 - link

    Great review. My first impression of the rebooted XPS series was "meh" but this review has helped change my mind. I can't remember the last time seeing such an enthusiastic review from Anandtech for a laptop PC (or a gold medal.) Dell IS doing a lot of things right here (for once) and they deserve to be recognized.

    Still I think there is some real criticism that needs to be made of the XPS 15. The main one, and this may be perceived as being unfair, is there is no good reason for 15" notebooks to exist, aside from niche applications. The XPS 15 is a case in point: 6.1lbs (6.5 w/ the 9-cell), 1.5" thick, 3-odd hours on the standard battery is no longer mobile: the farthest I would want to transport this is from my bed to my couch. And if it's not going to leave my house, why not upgrade one step higher to the XPS 17 which for $100 more gets me valuable screen real estate, a faster video card standard, and more powerful options?

    There is a user category that is going to be well-served by this overweight powerhouse, but their numbers are quite small. Most people looking for a mobile computer are much better served by sub-13" / 5lb laptops, where there is a lot of good choice in that category these days. Otherwise a home-based computer is better off as 17". The 15 is too big to be portable, too small to be useful. It's stuck between two product categories but serves neither adequately.

    So personally this review leaves me very interested in the XPS 17. I'd love to see how the new Asus N73Jq matches up (also features brand-name audio, also runs the new GT400M parts) ....any chance of a forthcoming review? My guess is that it's completely inferior (unless the rumoured 1080p panel finally shows up) but it looks exquisite and I'd love to read Anandtech's always-thorough verdict.
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Thursday, November 11, 2010 - link

    We're working to get the XPS L701x and L401x for review as well, but I don't know how soon that will happen. One thing that does concern me is that while the L501x has a standard 768p display, the thing that really makes this a winner is the 1080p B+GR (WLED) high gamut panel. There's no upgraded LCD on either the L401x or the L701x. Perhaps the stock panel is already good, but without testing I have no idea. I've seen far too many lousy LCDs to assume that just because the 1080p L501x panel is good, the other XPS panels will follow.

    Perhaps the above explains the existence of the L501x. I actually don't mind the 15-16" form factor, but it does come very close to the 17" laptops. Keep in mind that we're really looking at 15.6" LCD vs. 17.3" LCD, though, so in terms of total size you're looking at 1.3" wider and .9" deeper on the L701x (or roughly 8.5% larger). It's also a substantial 23% heavier, but then it has the ability to use a much more powerful GT 445M GPU in the L701x and comes standard with the 435M... perhaps the cooling accounts for most of the difference?

    Finally, while you consider 6.14 lbs too much to carry around, keep in mind that the oh-so-amazing MacBook Pro 15 checks in at 5.6 lbs. Perhaps being thinner makes it feel lighter, but really I have no issue carrying a 6 lbs. laptop around. It's the 9 lbs. with a 1.5 lbs brick and 2 hours of battery life that causes me grief. I'm still perplexed at the poor battery life of the L501x in the Internet test, so I'm going to run that same test with the LCD set to 768p to see what that does and test my theory of the resolution hurting it. With only the IGP active it should have done better, as the idle results indicate. We'll see....
    Reply
  • Evil_Sheep - Thursday, November 11, 2010 - link

    I just learned the 17 doesn't have the B+GR panel, and frankly I'm surprised as it seems a natural home for it. I thought I saw in some of the initial coverage that both the 15 and 17 would be offered it. Maybe it will be coming later. I hope so otherwise the 15 is a much better choice (for my needs anyway.)

    My personal cutoff for weight is 5lbs. I spent years carrying around 6-10lb laptop bags (including AC) all day...it's something I can do but it's something I will no longer choose to do when 13-inchers are cheap, fast and give all-day battery life.

    Once they get under 5lbs I often forget they're even there. It feels like going back to the dark ages with a +6lb 15-incher - I mean seriously I was using a similar form factor from Dell in 2000! That's history, or at least it needs to become history real soon.

    So yes by that metric I would also eschew the Macbook 15 (Amazing? Maybe. Good value? Hell no.) There is a small subgroup of people who can't get enough specs in a 13" package but still want to attempt to be mobile, but those people are few and know who they are. Most are better off with 13's or 17's (go big or go home.)

    Once the 400M parts start showing up in the Asus U30 refresh (and other 13-inchers), it's going to make relative heavyweights like the Envy 14 and XPS 14 look less interesting (you're gonna get the same power but twice the battery life, and of course the same crappy screen.) I'm surprised I haven't seen any announcements yet on the doorstep of the holiday season and considering how sku-happy Asus is.
    Reply
  • rorthron the wise - Thursday, November 11, 2010 - link

    Good review with a lot of encouraging info. I'm awaiting delivery of an XPS L701X with Geforce 445m and Intel I7 740QM.

    Jarred, are there any plans to review the L701X?
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Thursday, November 11, 2010 - link

    Yes, we've asked Dell for the L701x. When/if that will come, who knows? Reply
  • warden00 - Thursday, November 11, 2010 - link

    It's too bad they don't offer more options with the video devices. If this had a mobile Radeon 5650 in it it would be -perfect- for me. Reply
  • KommisMar - Thursday, November 11, 2010 - link

    The specs seem reasonably good for the price, but why is Dell still advertising laptops that look like they belong in 1999? I know you make some nice looking laptops, Dell. Stop hiding them in the business section of your website! Reply
  • TEAMSWITCHER - Thursday, November 11, 2010 - link

    Sure you can save a lot of money, but if your gonna use the computer for many years do you really want to lug around something so fat, heavy, and ugly? Remember that something is a bargain only if you get what you wan't. Why can't this thing be 1" thick, 1 pound less, and bit easier on the eyes. Also, why can't they put in a big battery without having it bulge out the bottom of the laptop. WHY!!!!

    If Apple can do it, why can't Dell? What the hell is going on here? Has Apple patented thin, lightweight good-looking laptops with non-protruding batteries? Dell - get a fu#&ing clue!
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Thursday, November 11, 2010 - link

    Apple tends to run hot, they have a slower GPU, and OS X is far more optimized for power than Win7. Controlling software as well as hardware certainly gives you some advantages. And if they went with squared edges like the MacBook rather than rounded corners, a bunch of people would be saying it looks boxy. This weighs half a pound more than the MBP 15, and it's about .3" thicker. That .3" should help with cooling quite a bit. Could they improve the design? Sure, there's always stuff that could be better, but the old Studio XPS 16 was worse in many ways in my book -- all that glossy plastic was horrible! Reply
  • mrmbmh - Saturday, November 13, 2010 - link

    Does this high quality LCD exist only for 15" Models? How about new 14 Dell XPS? (I don't mean resolution.... ? I mean contrast &.... ) Reply

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